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After decades of oppression, Kurds get taste of freedom as Assad's troops flee

Danny Gold

A new member of the Kurds' Popular Protection Units (YPG) stands in front of a crowd waving Kurdish flags in Qamishli, Syria. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, totaling more than 30 million people.

DERIK, Syria -- From the roof of the new home he is building on the outskirts of the Kurdish controlled city of Derik in northeast Syria, Bashir Said Mohammad can count a dozen or so other structures in different stages of completion. "All this building has happened after the revolution," he says. "Before we were not able to build. You would go to the regime and they would say no, because we are in the Kurdish areas."

In the Kurdish areas of Syria, known as Rojava, people have wasted little time seizing on the opportunities a tentative retreat by President Bashar Assad's government forces three months ago has afforded them. But while a burgeoning civil society independent of Assad's regime continues to grow, the Kurds are desperately trying to avoid the devastating violence that has battered cities like Aleppo and Homs.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, totaling more than 30 million people. Spread out between parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, they have been subjected to decades of oppression aimed at erasing their cultural identity in all four regions. Kurds make up around 10 percent of the population in Syria, totaling about 2 million, but have been treated as second-class citizens for generations.

In July, Assad forces made a hasty retreat from a number of Kurdish cities and towns in northeastern Syria. Despite a few skirmishes, the situation has remained relatively peaceful.

Though prices have risen, Derik's cafes are still full and people linger in the streets with little fear. Kurdish flags now fly from shops and houses, Kurdish police forces known as Asayish patrol the streets and community organizations known as People's Houses, "mala gels" in Kurdish, have been set up to solve disputes and act as de facto government institutions.

The Kurdish language, which as little as two years ago was forbidden, is now taught in state schools. Delkesh Resol, a 22-year-old former door-to-door salesman, was preparing one recent Sunday morning to teach a Kurdish language lesson to high school students despite a warning from the regime that language classes were to have stopped the previous Thursday.

'Studying in secret'
His act of defiance, which prior to the revolution would have led to a prison sentence and possible torture, did not concern him. "I'm not worried, there is no fear when you're doing something from your heart," Resol said. "Before this we knew there would come a day when we could do this (teach Kurdish in the schools), so we were studying in secret. If we need to teach Kurdish in the streets, we will."

Danny Gold

High school students in a classroom in Derik, Syria, listen to a teacher giving Kurdish lessons. Teaching the Kurdish language was previously forbidden.

The mala gel in Derik is made up of 40 members, and resolves disputes on everything from agriculture to the distribution of donations received from Kurds in Iraq. There is even a member who specializes in divorces. Additional "houses," such as the Women's House and the Youth House, handle more specialized disputes.

Despite Resol's confidence, it is still necessary to be wary of Assad Mukhabarat, or secret police, in Derik. Though the city is described as liberated, plainclothes intelligence officers still lurk the streets. Just exactly who is in power, and how much power they have, is vague.

The lack of heavy conflict and continued presence of Assad men in some of the cities have led to accusations that the Kurdish leadership arranged a secret deal with the regime, where they were allowed to take over certain areas in exchange for not forcing a third front. Others have argued that the Kurds are simply acting practically.

"The regime has not subjected the Kurdish regions to the same level of violence that it has directed against other parts of Syria," said Thomas McGee, a researcher on Syrian Kurds at Britain's University of Exeter, who spent two years living in the region and was there for the first eight months of the revolution. "Kurds have not gone out of their way to bring this upon themselves, learning from the regime's brutal reaction to the 2004 Kurdish uprising."  In 2004, Kurdish protests that began at a soccer game led to an assault by regime forces that ended with over 30 Kurdish citizens killed.

"The fact that neither the regime nor Kurds en masse have actively declared war on the other need not mean that there is collusion. Each side has their interests and is pursuing this," McGee added. "Kurds, for their part seek stability and wish to avoid escalation."

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Both sides in the Kurdish areas walk a tenuous line, in some areas existing side-by-side while trying to avoid direct conflict that seems inevitable. Regime buildings are still occupied by officials, but the people inside are said to be powerless. In Derik -- which is 90 percent Kurdish -- the mala gel is housed in a building formerly used by a youth committee of Assad's ruling Baath party. It is now adorned with photos of Syrian Kurdish martyrs and Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who is jailed in Turkey. According to the State Department, "PKK terrorist activity has been responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 Turkish citizens."

It is also next door to a local headquarters for the Baath party, where spray-painted photos of Assad family members dot the perimeter walls. In other parts of the city, these images have been defaced, as have representations of the Syrian flag.

The small city of Girke Lege, another liberated Kurdish area, lies adjacent to the oil city of Rmeilan, which is heavily fortified with Assad troops. A large Kurdish flag welcomes visitors to the city, but after a ten-minute drive down the road, an Assad flag waves above a fortress-like encampment.

'It feels like a new place'
Kana Berakat, 43, a member of the People's House in Girke Lege, recalls the two times he was imprisoned for Kurdish rights activism. At Aleppo University in 1990, he tried to organize a Newroz celebration and spent 70 days in jail. In 2009, he spent a week in jail after attending a Kurdish rights demonstration. That time, Berakat was arrested because he did not have identification papers. Berakat is one of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Syria who had their citizenship removed in 1962 and are currently stateless.

"It feels like a new place. Before when I went shopping to get tomatoes, I was very afraid," he said. "I thought the regime would take me. Now I walk around not worried, like I am a free man, but I am worried for the future."

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Berakat, though enjoying his newfound freedom, is concerned that as the regime continues to falter, it may one day grow desperate and unleash the troops next door. By then, though, he hopes the Kurdish militia will be strong enough to defend the Kurdish people.

Danny Gold

Bashir Said Mohammad surveys construction on a new home he began building in Derik, Syria, after the revolution started. He had been previously been denied permission because he is a Kurd.

The Kurds' Popular Protection Units (YPG) patrol the borders and act as a deterrent to both Assad forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army. Established by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Syrian Kurdish political group, the YPG is now distancing itself and trying to be seen as the universal defenders of the Syrian Kurds instead of the party's military wing.

Videos of YPG forces training have shown a noticeable lack of heavily artillery, but the troop numbers are said to be growing every day. The formation of a fourth brigade was just announced.

More Syria coverage from NBC News

The YPG has not hesitated to attack the regime if provoked, and has sought to prevent both the FSA and the regime from entering Kurdish neighborhoods in more contested areas like Kobane and Efrin. After a Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo was bombed in late July resulting in the death of 21 civilians, YPG forces killed three regime soldiers and captured a number of others.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

Last week, Assad's forces bombed a Kurdish area in Aleppo. The FSA and the YPG also clashed, reportedly leaving about 20 fighters dead.

At a recent demonstration in the city of Qamishli, 50 or so new recruits lined up for military exercises. They stood silently, faces covered in scarves as to obscure their identities and surrounded by a crowd of thousands chanting slogans of support. Old women clad in hijabs and young girls in Western-style clothing waved flags, singing and dancing to songs of Kurdish freedom.

The demonstration came a few days after a car bomb exploded outside an Assad base in the city, killing four soldiers. The bombing was later claimed by Jabhat Al-Nusra, a shadowy jihadist organization with ties to al-Qaida that is fighting against the regime. The night before had seen a gunbattle at the airport between the FSA and the regime. These incidents heightened fears that the war was encroaching into Kurdish territory.


A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country

Some Kurds believe the FSA means to lure the Kurds further into the conflict, forcing Assad to open up another front and possibly using the Kurdish issue to persuade Turkey to further involve itself. Others think that the regime will grow weary of the Kurdish push for more rights and eventual autonomy, and look to reassert control.

Turkey has leveled accusations that the PYD is simply a front for the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a guerrilla war against the Turkish government for 30 years. Turkey has threatened to invade the Kurdish areas to root them out. PYD categorically denies that it is simply a front for the PKK, saying that they share ideology but do not take orders.

NYT: Syria rivals in deadly game of cat-and-mouse

Saleh Muslim Mohammed, the leader of the PYD, also expressed fear of the Islamist brigades and extremists said to be fighting alongside the FSA.

For now, the Kurds appear intent on staving off escalating conflict while attempting to build up enough strength to protect their newfound rights and eventually obtain a level of freedom that has eluded them in Syria.

"Violence is the last choice, but if anything happens here the YPG will answer," said Mohammed Saeed, a PYD official in Derik. "Every family here has weapons. All the Kurdish, not only the YPG, will defend themselves. Without Kurdish rights, there will be no stability."

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